Archive | November, 2016

How to Write Expansively Instead of In a Straight Line

29 Nov
Angela Palm's memoir Riverine "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine “is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

In my own writing, the number one sign that I’ve lost track of the narrative is that I become locked into a minute-by-minute recitation of what’s happening in the story. Even if the action is eventful, the telling of it feels tedious. Good prose should seem light on its feet, not plodding; expansive, not narrow; all-inclusive like Borges’ aleph or Whitman’s lines “what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Perhaps that sounds a bit high-minded, but it’s a feat of mechanics, something that any writer can try on the page.

A great example of expansive prose can be found in Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Memoir Works

Palm grew up in rural Indiana, in an unincorporated group of homes along the Kankakee River. Her neighbor and friend was a boy named Corey, who she played with and fantasized about until the day he was arrested for the brutal murder of two of their neighbors. She continues thinking about him long afterward, and the memoir is an attempt, in part, to make sense of that murder in both their lives.

As a result, the book faces the need of telling what happened to Palm and Corey but also exploring the world around them. Palm does exactly that in a passage about a third of the way into the memoir:

Generally, the town newspaper was a thing you decidedly wanted your name in or out of, depending on your status. If you were Bridget Trotsma with the brownest eyes and leanest thighs and eagerest stage mother, you wanted to be in. You said, “Look at that. I can’t believe I made front page. Again.” You smiled to yourself knowing full well you’d be on the front page but not knowing that you life would never be better than it was in that moment. If you were Corey, on the other hand, and you had killed two elderly, innocent persons and torched their car in a cornfield, you wanted to be out. You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart. He talked to someone who talked to someone else who talked to the police.

The passage starts with a definitive statement about town newspapers and the sort of people who wanted to be written about. It’s a statement that requires explanation and evidence, which Palm proceeds to provide with the examples of Bridget Trotsma and Corey. Buried within that explanation are more statements that beg for more information, like “But Corey wasn’t that smart.” It’s no accident, then, that the next paragraph begins “Or, he was smart once, but only had a makeshift upbringing as the fifth of five children, one dead too young, to guide him.”

This meditation on types of people and how they become that way runs into an opposing view in the next paragraph:

I walked the aisles of the grocery store—a mistake, in retrospect. In the bread aisle at the IGA, I heard a man say, “I hope he fries.” Firing squad, another said. In the frozen section: “Those people living in the old riverbed ought to be self-incorporated if you ask me. Those people ain’t never been fit for this town. Draw a line between the northern farms and the river and be done with them.” Some folks are born evil, someone said. “Ain’t nothing you can do about it.” But that wasn’t true, was it?

The paragraph proceeds to offer examples that complicate a belief that in “born evil.”

The passage has now moved from the town newspaper to a metaphysical discussion of the nature of the soul, and so the next paragraph begins with “His case never went to trial” and ends with “But somehow I held out hope against hope in Corey’s civility, in his true self before he shattered, over time, into other broken versions of himself.”

We learn essential information about the narrative, the sort of details that are part of any crime story. But by making definitive claims about the world (from simple things like newspapers to complex abstractions like the nature of good and evil), the prose expand far beyond the basic execution of the crime and its punishment.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s expand a narrative beyond its immediate action, using Riverine by Angela Palm as a model:

  1. Start with a general statement about the people, places, or things in your narrative. Palm begins her passage with newspapers and how people feel about appearing in them. It’s a version of the old saw “There are two types of people: those who ____ and those who ____.” Of course, statements like these are simplistic (“There are two types of people: Those who believe in dualities, and those who don’t.”). The point is not to definitively describe something so much as launch a discussion of it. You’re giving yourself something to talk about. So, pick any aspect of your narrative world and describe it in terms of “There are two types of people…” Ideally, you’re picking something that is connected to the main thread (the action or plot) of your story, but don’t let that stop you in your tracks. If you’re stuck, pick anything and see where it takes you. Don’t plan yourself into a perpetually blank page.
  2. Provide evidence for your statement. Give examples, as Palm does with Bridget and Corey. Put faces on the examples. Avoid, if you can, the invention of straw men (faceless characters who act in ways that are convenient for the writer). Ground your statement in reality (even if that reality is intentionally curated).
  3. Make definitive statements about your examples. Palm writes, “You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart.” She starts with a generalization (“if you were smart”) and then makes it particular (“But Corey wasn’t”). Try using Palm’s basic structure “If you were ___, then ___.” Then, follow it up with “But/And ___ was/wasn’t ___.”
  4. Provide evidence for this new statement. Palm digs into the idea that Corey wasn’t smart and tries to explain how that could be true. In your own work, think about the how. This may feel like a natural progression: from what is to how/why it got that way.
  5. Introduce opposing views. If this sounds like instructions for a freshman comp essay, that’s okay. Good arguments are often narratives, and good narratives often make arguments about their worlds and characters. Palm introduces what some of the townspeople say about Corey, which differs from her own perception of him. She does this by putting herself in the place where the townspeople can be found: the grocery store. She doesn’t worry about identifying the people she encounters. Instead, she lists their statements one after another.
  6. Ask if these opposing views are true. Palm does this literally: “But that wasn’t true, was it?” Notice how she uses a question, not a statement (But that wasn’t true). A question demands an answer, which she then must provide. What you’ll probably find is that if you ask enough questions in your narrative (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction), you’ll find one that’s difficult to answer–and it’s that question that is likely at the reason you began writing the story in the first place.

The goal is expanding a piece of prose to reveal the world around a plot and possibly discover a story’s about-ness.

Good luck.


An Interview with Kelly Davio

27 Nov
Kelly Davio is the author of the essay "Strong Is the New Sexy" and the poetry collection,

Kelly Davio is the author of the essay “Strong Is the New Sexy” and the poetry collection, Burn This House.

Kelly Davio is the American Editor of Eyewear Publishing, the Co-Publisher and Poetry Editor for Tahoma Literary Review, and the former Managing Editor for The Los Angeles Review. She writes the column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazine and regularly contributes to a variety of magazines, reviews, and journals, ranging from Ravishly to Women’s Review of Books. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, is now available from Red Hen Press. Her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” was published at The Rumpus.

In this interview, Davio discusses the cultural criteria for womanhood, the corporate interests in empowerment, and the lessons of writing poetry for essay writers.

To read Davio’s essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” and an exercise on structure, click here.

Michael Noll

This is such a powerful essay, especially the line, “I was never a curvy woman to begin with, but with each of the more feminine attributes I’ve lost, I’ve become, I am given to understand, less and less of a real woman.” I’m curious how you worked up to this statement. Was it a realization that you’ve had for a while and so part of writing the essay was finding a way to say it? Or did this line only occur to you as you worked on the piece?

Kelly Davio

This idea, that I’m the antithesis of a “real woman,” is something I’ve been circling around for some time, often with amusement and other times with resignation or even bald aggravation. Our culture is strangely invested in telling women what makes them real: having curves, having health, having children, having beauty, having strength, having sexiness. I don’t feel that I meet any of the criteria for being a real woman, so it must stand to reason that I’m an unreal woman. I’ve been writing about this idea in my poetry for a little while, and have developed a character I call The Unreal Woman—she’s part comedic alter-ego and part antihero—whom I use to explore the idea of being left out and left over.

In writing “Strong is the New Sexy,” though, I wanted to take a more straightforward, serious approach to this topic. Cathartic as it is for me to write humorous or wry poems about The Unreal Woman, it was important to me to work up the courage to speak bluntly about body image and disability. I may be hyperaware of how few people write about the disabled body in the literary space, but it’s a topic that feels to me like one of the last literary taboos, and I wanted to, if not break it, at least chip artfully around its corners.

Michael Noll

In the first paragraph, you’re learning to swallow again and watching hang gliders through the window. This contrast between weakness and strength is carried through the entire essay. At one point in the essay, you juxtapose the statements, “Strong is the new sexy” and “grave weakness.” Did you start with this structure or discover it as you put images down on the page?

Kelly Davio

I did begin with the rough structure in mind. I find it amusing that we speak so much about strength as an essential attribute, especially with regard to living with illness, yet the name of the disease I live with–myasthenia gravis–quite literally means “grave weakness.” That seemed like a fruitful contrast to examine.

Beyond that fact, the form almost seemed to give itself to me on a platter with the unlikely scenario of daredevils hang gliding right in view of the hospital complex (I suppose they’re in the right place if anything goes amiss with their sport). I mean, you can’t make this stuff up! Here are these folks who presumably have health enough to spare, dangling themselves on nothing but air currents, and then you have this group of patients shuffling around in our sweatpants. The only things separating our groups were some large windows and a big gap in circumstance. I liked the idea that I could use this contrast between images of health and disability to work up to the view of acceptance that I put forth in the end of the essay.

Michael Noll

The essay is full of short paragraphs that make quick leaps of logic. For instance, you write this about the therapist: “The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.” The leap from giving up to looking at your chart is striking. I think I actually paused after I read it the first time. The leap happens without any mechanics. You don’t say that she looked at you worriedly or that she advised you to eat more. There are so many ways that this moment could have been expanded, so many other pieces of seemingly pertinent information that could have been added. Such brevity is often difficult for fiction writers, but you’re a poet. What effect do you think your experience with the distillation and density that happens in poems has on your approach to writing an essay?

Kelly Davio

Most of us have probably experienced the phenomenon of trying to get the spirit of an incident on the page, and adding, elaborating, and decorating that incident for fear we haven’t gotten it quite right or communicated it fully. The problem with that impulse to keep renovating the image is that, the more you add, the more you dilute.

Poetry has a wonderful way of teaching the importance of getting the image right rather than piling on additions; when a poem begins to over-explain by even a word or two, the entire piece falls apart. Poetry has taught me to think through everything I put on the page before I put it there, and to approach everything I write slowly and attentively so that I can avoid the impulse to over-elaborate out of fear that the reader won’t grasp my meaning.

I should also note that I think the positions of the body are often more revealing than dialogue tags, and I tend to use body language in lieu of tagging whenever I can. What we say verbally is only a fragment of what we communicate, and when you excise the “he saids” from your writing, you give yourself room enough to suggest many of those subtleties in a small amount of space.

Michael Noll

In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they’re not real women.

The essay ends with you watching the gliders. Unlike at the beginning of the essay, you write, “I don’t look away. I have to admit that they are beautiful.” This is a pretty interesting statement given the connections you’ve drawn between the gliders and the ideas of strength and “real” women, which means women with curves. We tend to think in terms of empowerment, the belief that whoever you are, however you look, is good and beautiful. This is especially true with women’s health issues. Cancer survivors compete in triathlons. But that’s not really how this essay ends, and it’s certainly not the advice that you’re given by your doctor. In your case, your body attacks strength and effort. How do you reconcile this paradox: we don’t really have a philosophical place for an illness and a “real” body like yours?

Kelly Davio

Empowerment is a tricky business. Culturally, we have been making some tiny strides toward greater body acceptance for women, but it’s usually a corporate money-maker like Dove’s questionable “Real Beauty” campaign that features nothing but visibly able-bodied women who still fit highly conventional standards of attractiveness. We still have supposedly health-focused television shows that revolve around the entire premise that fat people need to be shamed and monitored into losing weight. And yes, we love to see cancer survivors compete in triathlons! But we sure don’t do much for cancer patients when they’re not “raising awareness”; do we cover our coughs on the bus so that the chemo patient doesn’t catch our germs and become seriously ill? No, unless somebody’s looking inspiring, we have little time for her. We like it when the arc of someone else’s story bends toward us. We like people to look like us, act like us. We have a low tolerance for those people and those bodies that don’t reflect us and underwrite our opinions about the world.

But let me tiptoe off my soapbox and get back to the question at hand. Part of what I wanted to say in this essay is that, over time, I’ve realized that body acceptance is a whole lot more than adopting a sassy attitude as though I’m in a Special K commercial—that’s a cheap imitation of actual acceptance. To me, body acceptance is the choice to allow my body to be as it is and others’ bodies to be as they are. It’s not just about my getting over the embarrassment of walking with a cane when I need to be on my feet for a long time, or coming to terms with all the visible side effects of my medications (though those have been big steps for me). It’s also about stopping the train of envy and judgment; body acceptance means refusing to look at someone else and say “I wish I had your…” or “you’d be so pretty if…”. It’s the radical idea that you and I are both good in and of ourselves, and that no one’s goodness diminishes another’s.

That’s what I mean when I say that I admit the hang gliders are beautiful—I’ve come to a place where I no longer feel envious of their beauty or their health. Just as I can live in this body and call it good, I acknowledge and enjoy their goodness, too.

First Published in August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Theme to Create Structure

22 Nov
In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the image of ideal female beauty from thin to curvy still leaves some women feeling unreal and unfeminine.  Art Credit: Mark Armstrong

For some writers, structure comes naturally. They have an innate compass that allows them to chart a course through the jumble of experiences and memories in their minds, forming a narrative arc from the chaos. Others of us, though, can spend all day writing and still find nothing but a mess on the page. No matter how interesting the individual paragraphs or sentences or story, until those things are placed within some structure, the essay won’t work. The question is this: How do we find that structure?

Kelly Davio’s essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” offers a primer in giving structure to our experiences and ideas. It appeared in The Rumpus, where you can read it now. 

How the Essay Works

The essay plants several flags in the ground and moves back and forth between them. The first flag is found in the title, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” which clearly presents one idea that will recur within the essay: for a woman, being strong is desirable. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess that this statement suggests another, different idea: for a woman, being thin is sexy and desirable. Davio makes this connection explicitly:

The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.

These two ideas alone are probably enough to fuel an essay. In fact, you’ve probably read an essay like that before. But Davio is interested in moving beyond binary positions of “strong vs skinny” because neither describes her, and she, of course, is a real woman. So she plants a third flag in the ground: “The name of my disease translates directly from the Greek and Latin to ‘grave weakness.'” Due to the nature of this disease, she’s lost the muscle memory required for eating and must relearn it with the help of a physical therapist:

The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.

Davio has shifted the conversation from “strong vs skinny” to “Strong is the new sexy vs grave weakness.” In other words, what if a woman is thin not because she wants to be but because she has no choice? These are the flags (strong/sexy and grave weakness) that Davio moves between. Each section of the essay is focused on one or the other or on the tension between the two:

  • The first section introduces the image of Davio relearning to eat while looking out the window at hang gliders.
  • The second section introduces a Pinterest image of a curvy woman in a swimsuit and the idea that “being healthy and fit is so much more important than being skinny.”
  • The third section returns to Davio learning how to eat and adds the dimension of unwanted weight loss.
  • The fourth section explains the consequences of losing weight and, as a result, the markers of femininity: Davio feels that is becoming “less and less of a real woman.”
  • The fifth section gives details about the physical effects of the “grave weakness.”
  • The sixth section shows Davio trying to cover up these effects.
  • The next two sections finally make explicit the juxtaposition between strong and weak.
  • The final section returns to the hang gliders, with Davio admitting “that they are beautiful.”

By planting the thematic flags of the essay so clearly, Davio gives her imagination and memory a structure to work within. Everyone has sat in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices; those scenes in this essay could have been generic. But because Davio knows (or her unconscious knows) that she’s writing about strength and grave weakness, she focuses the waiting-room scene on images that touches on those ideas: particular images on her phone, the hang gliders outside the window.

By knowing what the essay is about, Davio also knows which details to use and which to leave out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create structure with theme using “Strong Is The New Sexy” by Kelly Davio as a model:

  1. Choose your topic. What are you going to write about? It might just be a story or memory that’s been running through your mind. You might not know what it’s about. That’s fine. The important thing is to have something definite in your mind, some concrete experience or detail.
  2. Identify what your essay seems to be about. If you told someone the story/memory/detail, what would they say it’s about? Or, to put it another way, what is the usual version of your essay? What would readers expect it to be about based on the title? Davio’s essay would seem, from the title, to be making a common argument about female body image: that strong/athletic/curvy is better than making oneself skinny through self-deprivation. Even though your essay might not be about this expected thing, it’s useful to know what is expected. It gives you something to react against.
  3. What is the essay really about? Perhaps you’ve had the experience of telling someone you’re story/memory/detail and they say, “Well, here’s what’s going on with you.” If they’re right, it’s enlightening. If they’re wrong, it’s infuriating. The best essays often develop from the need to correct an idea or fill in a missing gap. Davio’s essay is adding necessary dimensions to the strong vs skinny debate. What does your essay want to add to the ideas that readers already have? How can you say to your imaginary reader, “No, no, it’s not about that at all. It’s about this?”
  4. Plant your flags. Identify the different positions/ideas present in your essay (perhaps conflicting in your essay). Do it in a word or two. Davio uses “strong/sexy” and “grave weakness.” How can you distill your argument to a couple of words like that?
  5. Write scenes/sections around each flag. One way to think about structure is as “theme and variation.” How many different perspectives can you offer on the flags that you’ve planted. For strength, Davio 1) shows images of female beauty from her phone, 2) shows people who are healthy and actively flying hang gliders, and 3) gives context (“the specter of anorexia”). She does the same thing with grave weakness, showing various aspects of what that means in physical terms and their mental effect. For each of the flags you’ve planted (the one or two-word phrases that explain what the essay is about), write a scene from a story or build a paragraph using an image or detail. To change metaphors, how can you filter your memories through these phrases to see what comes out?

At some point, you’ll find that you have enough scenes and sections, and your job will be to order them. That will be easier if they share a similar focus and direction.

Good luck!

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

17 Nov

Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, Word Riot, Requited, Voices de la Luna and elsewhere.  Born to parents of African-American and Sicilian decent, she is the fiction editor of Apogee Journal and BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. She is also the co-literary coordinator of the Mixed Remixed Festival, held annually at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Esme-Michelle is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a recipient of fellowships from Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University.

For a writing exercise about describing objects in a room based on Watkins’ story “Xochimilco,” click here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses writing from a child’s point of view, ordering a description of place, and finding a setting that can convey the complexity of Los Angeles.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be biracial—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

Originally posted in February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Put Setting to Work

15 Nov

“Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins appeared in the Boston Review.

We’re taught from an early age that stories have five parts and setting comes first, which means it’s important. After all, one of the most famous first sentences of all time—”It was a dark and stormy night”—sets the stage for a particular kind of story. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more. But what?

Here’s a short story that demonstrates clearly the work that setting can perform. “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins was published in the Boston Review and can be read here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on one particular paragraph. Watkins is doing something fairly simple: describing an empty room. Of course, an empty room has nothing to describe except walls and floors, so she tells us what is absent. Most writers would likely approach the task in the same way. But Watkins goes one step further, and here is where we can learn from her:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.

Now, let’s focus on a single line from that paragraph:

Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made

Notice how the drapes aren’t simply curtains. We learn their size and style and history, yes, but we also learn something more important. The curtains are our window into both Mammì and the narrator.

  • “Stay Away” gives us Mammi’s voice. The curtains are suddenly embodied with Mammì’s personality and value system. Each item missing from the room will be given a name based on how Mammì warned her kids about using it.
  • The phrase “tall as street lights” gives us a sense of the narrator’s size. Drapes are only as tall as street lights if you’re looking up at them from a distance. Drapes aren’t so tall if you are tall.
  • The “heavy fabric” suggests, perhaps, that the drapes are not cheap, but more certainly the word “heavy” sets up a contrast with their being flown halfway across the world. The drapes must truly be important to Mammì for her to invest them with such care and effort.
  • Finally, “Nonna’s in Bivona” tells us that’s it not just anyone who made the drapes, and “custom-made” suggests opulence and care.

None of the phrases in this sentence (or any of the descriptions in the paragraph) are written only to show the reader how the room used to look. Each phrase and description also reveals the perspective of the narrator and the value system of Mammì. It is these things—perspective and values—that drive the story forward. Without them, the story is left with a kid and an upset mom. With them, the story becomes particular, and the mom’s confusion/anger/loss become overwhelming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put setting to work, using “Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins as a model:

  1. Choose a room to describe. It can also be a place outdoors. If inventing a place is difficult, choose one you know well. You’ll need to see objects in the place.
  2. Choose a character for whom the place is supremely important. The importance can be highly dramatic (attempted murder) or smaller, more personal in nature. For instance, a child could sit in the living room, watching television, while her parents argue in the other room. The key is to find an emotional connection to the room.
  3. Give the character one or two dominant values or traits. No character can be a blank slate. Watkins makes her narrator mature, an oldest child responsible for her younger brother. In short, she’s the kind of person who listens when someone says to stay away from the drapes. Her mother is no-nonsense, in command, and under a great deal of stress.
  4. Convey those traits through description. Describe the things in the room or the place so that the reader learns not only how the place looks but also values and traits of the character—without ever seeing him or her. Watkins does this by issuing commands for the objects in the room: Stay Away, Go Sit Down, and Go Ahead and Try It. These commands tell us about the person giving them and the person receiving them. There are many ways to create this effect. Keep in mind the lesson from the old Sherlock Holmes story: If a house is on fire, the thing a person grabs first tells you about his or her priorities. Which objects in the room are off limits? Which objects are valued? Which are neglected and dusty? What has been left to rust in the rain?

This exercise can be challenging, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. You’ll also begin to see it in everything you read. This is how great writers describe place. For example, there’s a famous passage in The Great Gatsby Daisy and Jordan are sitting in Daisy’s living room. The windows are open, the curtains are billowing, the women’s dresses are floating. Then Tom walks in, slams the door, and everything stops. The curtains and dresses sink. Even though we’ve barely been introduced to the characters, the room’s description has shown us the dynamics at work. That is what setting can accomplish.

An Interview with Tim Horvath

10 Nov
A reviewer for NPR's Morning Edition called Tim Horvath's story collection, Understories, "My favorite collection of short stories in recent memory."

A reviewer for NPR’s Morning Edition called Tim Horvath’s story collection, Understories, “My favorite collection of short stories in recent memory.”

Tim Horvath is the author of Understories and Circulation. His stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Fiction, The Normal School, and elsewhere. His story “The Understory” was selected by Bill Henderson, founder and president of the Pushcart Press, as the winner of the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. He teaches creative writing in the BFA and low-residency MFA programs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and has previously worked as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, primarily with adolescents and children and young adults with autism. He received his MFA from the University of New Hampshire, where he won the Thomas Williams Prize. He is the recipient of a Yaddo Fellowship, occasionally blogs for BIG OTHER, and is an assistant prose editor for Camera Obscura.

To read Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” and an exercise on moving a story forward, click here.

In this interview, Horvath discusses how characters engage with time, treating language and sentences as a game, and providing emotional cover for a protagonist.

Michael Noll

This story moves through time so easily that it’s easy to overlook how impressive this is. The beginning of the story, for instance, starts in the present and by the third sentence, has moved firmly into the past—but it doesn’t get stuck in the moments of baby food and crayons. Is this something you do naturally, or do you find yourself making conscious decisions about moving through time in a story?

Tim Horvath

I think you’ve asked the right question here, one of the most bullseyeish you could’ve posed, because the question of time is key to everything I write—how does the past bear on the present, how are these characters engaging with time, etc.? Every story/work imposes its own time scheme and challenges. With the novel, for instance, I’m trying to balance the weight of entire lives with the events of a particular summer which serves as the story’s present moment. And also balance musical time with storytelling time. I’m kind of on this many-sided warped-wood see-saw, running back and forth and trying to get it to work with some semblance of gracefulness.

In the case of this story, the narrator is tracing back a sort of timeline of “how did I get to this moment?” and doing so demands that he go back to his daughter’s childhood, but there’s a Big Bang quality to the shape of the narrative where it is compressing all of those moments into a single moment. The “life flashing across one’s eyes” phenomenon is dubious to me, but, like most dubious things, it can work under the right conditions in fiction, with its preternatural ability to pummel and pinch time into the shapes it needs—see Calvino’s “All at One Point” or Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata or the magnificent end of “On the Rainy River” from The Things They Carried where Tim O’Brien sits on a rowboat deciding what to do with his life, roiling with anguish as he teeters between whether or not to try to dodge the draft, which is really to say choosing between two possible futures for himself. Even though we already know what he’s chooses because of the rest of the book, O’Brien slows time to a brutal crawl.

It’s a kind of diving board moment, the suspension in midair, that a story can linger in and even unfold in. I would say that the use of the word “How” here to propel the narrative forward became a way to ensure I didn’t get caught in any particular rut of time, didn’t get mired in the quicksand of memory or “what if.” It’s as if that word becomes an engine propelling the story forward, a device that the narrator will use to catalogue his life and his daughter’s life, their high and low moments, tracing them with the intensity of a forensic scientist. But it also means that in the background of the story there is a steady beat, this echo of “How. How How.” It’s important that the word is “How” and not “Why?” “Why” is too overt, too in-your-face. We all want to know why—the narrator wants to know “why,” but will ask “How” instead, partly because unlike “Why,” which seems to pose a question by its very nature, “How” can seem to be providing answers, as in “How-to Guides” and the like. “How” can be a word of marveling at what is, rather than attempting to unravel the causes of what is. And so while seeking to unravel “why,” the narrator hides behind the mask of “how.”

Michael Noll

The story uses repetition, starting many sentences with “How…” It’s probably natural to use repetition to drill into a moment, to explore all of the angles of a single point in time, but that’s not what you do. Instead, you keep pushing the story forward even as you repeat the same syntax. At what point in the drafting process did you realize, okay, I’m going to stick with this sentence structure?

Tim Horvath

Tim Horvath's collection, Understories, "revels in wordplay and inventiveness."

Tim Horvath’s collection, Understories, “revels in wordplay and inventiveness.”

At first it was a kind of a game, a generative one. I always had the first word of the next sentence—phew! It actually became important to me to break with that at various points—to throw in a couple of sentences without “How” in order to make sure it was not formulaic. I always wanted the possibility of something else, so the reader couldn’t get too comfortable. It was important that they be fragments, too—there’s something liberating in them. Quickly, I found that the scaffolding allowed me to focus more on the character and his emotional/psychological condition than a more conventional story. Having that middle square in Bingo where I was “given” the first word in the next sentence meant that I could pay more attention to him, his relationship with his daughter, and the language in the rest of the sentence, which had to push toward something unexpected in each case to offset the (mostly) predictable openings.

Michael Noll

The he of the story goes through a pretty rough time. The exact nature of it isn’t entirely clear, but we learn enough to know that it’s bad. Were you ever tempted to explain his situation clearly—or did knowing or conveying that information not matter to you as you wrote?

Tim Horvath

I suppose another purpose of the “Hows” is that they provide a bit of a smokescreen, emotional cover for the protagonist. Don’t mind me and my wounds and scars, they seem to say. Focus on this mantra instead. Focus on moving forward, one sentence fragment at a time. Focus on the “Refresh, Refresh,” to quote Ben Percy’s great story, of language itself, with its reassurance and promise, with each new sentence, of reinscribing and thus reinventing the universe, of getting things right, of undoing the damage, shaking the Etch-a-Sketch back to mint condition. Each sentence dawns in the East of its opening. Meanwhile, you’re absolutely right that there’s pain bubbling and churning down there, between those fresh starts. But as for the particulars of his situation, well, to me that is less material. I was more interested in a character taking stock of his life as a whole, and to him, frankly, the particulars are less important than the prospect of salvaging some kind of relationship with his daughter. He is painting with a broad brush, in a sense, getting the general shapes and contours of his life on the canvas. If he can get those, maybe he can stand back and behold himself. I don’t think he’s conscious of this exactly—maybe in a weird way he’s actually emulating his daughter’s art.

Michael Noll

This story is not an outlier in terms of style. While you don’t always use repetition in quite this way, this story is certainly of a piece with your other work. I know you’re working on a novel now. What has it been like to adapt this style to that longer structure. Were there writers that you looked to for models?

Tim Horvath

The novel has presented all kinds of challenges. One of the greatest has been writing about music in a way that does justice to the subject and doesn’t make me look too far out of my depth. I’ve long been obsessed with music, but my response has been very intuitive, and now I’m writing about imagined classical composers, who of course also have an intuitive sense but are steeped in actual technical knowledge. In researching, I’ve spent countless hours with composers, musicians, and musicologists, sitting in on rehearsals and theory classes, going to bars after concerts, and that world is so rich and intricate and various that I’m continually floored, which is a great thing—may it never get old!  The main character, whose third person perspective we’re in, is the more experimental of the composers, hence the narration also has to have a somewhat thorny quality, yet I want the prose itself to have a musical quality, since that’s one of the main things I’m drawn to in prose in general. I’d like to think that Understories cuts a pretty wide stylistic swath in general, with some stories blatantly playing with language while others are more obsessed with character and relationship, and some are fixated on landscape and some are staking out some territory of ideas, and in the end I’d hope that many are doing several at once. There’s a story that Lisa Cooper Vest told at a recent conference I attended on “Musicology and the Present” which might be apocryphal but I suppose could be real, of the great Polish composer Penderecki writing out two scores with different hands so that he could enter both of them in the same competition and not have them be traceable to the same person. Now, according to the story, Penderecki won first, second, and third in the competition, which leads to the natural question—what or where was the third hand? In some ways, it feels as though I’ve tried to write my stories three-handedly, and I think that I’m trying to coordinate the work of these hands a bit more in the novel, figure out their rhythms and choreography, but it remains to be seen what that will look like in the end.

November 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Hasanthika Sirisena

3 Nov
Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction. She is associate fiction editor for West Branch literary magazine and a visiting professor at Susquehanna University. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Globe and MailWSQThe Kenyon ReviewGlimmer Train, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Narrative, and other magazines. Her work has been anthologized in The Best New American Voices and twice named a distinguished story by Best American Short Stories (2011, 2012). Sirisena has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and, in 2008, received a Rona Jaffe Writers Award.

To read an exercise on figuring out what really drives a character to act, based on Sirisena’s story “Ismail,” click here.

In this interview, Sirisena discusses writing characters different who are different than yourself, compressing backstory, finding the end of a story, and what comes next for the Sri Lankan political environment that informs her work.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite passages in the story is this one: 

If you go long enough without something, sex, money, even love, you can get to the point you don’t need it. But if you suddenly have access to what’s missing, get it back in your life, then you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that thing. The thought of loss knocks you flat on the floor, your chest caved in, gasping for air.

For me anyway, it’s the emotional heart of the story and the key to everything that happens in it. Was it in the draft from the beginning? In other words, was this desire what drew you into the story? Or was it something you discovered as you wrote?

Hasanthika Sirisena

It came to me as I wrote. Some readers tell me that they think Ismail is a jerk. And there are aspects of his character that are insensitive. But I also see him as someone who has undergone a terrible trauma and, understandably, has chosen as his coping mechanism a front of humor and bravado. In some sense, I see him as brave. He has to keep going for his father and his brother. But he also allows himself some awareness.

I’m not particularly interested in characters who look like or talk like me. I try to invent people I want to know and understand better. To do that, I try to find a point of empathy—something that we both might share. Though Ismail and I have had different life experiences, I know what it feels like to live without, and I realized as I wrote him that he did to. And I also try to pretend in my life that I’m very tough to hide a profound vulnerability and fear, as he does. Ismail c’est moi!

Michael Noll

The story covers a lot of time, and a lot of that time is compressed into short passages, like the one about how Abdul begins to blow off the narrator. When you’re in the midst of a story, how do you know which information to dramatize and which information to summarize?

Hasanthika Sirisena

For this story I constructed a traditional narrative arc. Ismail has a fairly simple desire: to get back at his friend. But that desire is wrapped in his own fear of losing his brother and of not really fitting into American society. I chose to dramatize those scenes that were key to that relationship and the conflict between the two brothers. Ismail constantly tries to test his brother and make him prove his loyalty. Other parts of the story: the past in Sri Lanka, the burgeoning relationship between the little brother and his girlfriend weren’t part of that central drama so I compressed and summarized that.

Michael Noll

Hasanthika Sirisena's collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena’s collection, The Other One, was called “unforgettable” and “lucid and wise” by Claire Messud.

The end of the story is great. I can’t imagine it ending any other way, but I know from experience that even inevitable endings are anything but when a story is being written. Did you always know where the story was going?

Hasanthika Sirisena

The end of this story was hard! It took me three years to write this story—to get it right—and that was mostly because of the ending. I’ve learned in my career you have to get the ending absolutely pitch perfect. The emotional impact is usually as subtle as the correct beat. The right beat and the reader goes ‘wow.’ The wrong beat and you have one angry reader because she’s been with you the entire way only to be let down. It’s daunting. (As an aside, I’m surprised at how many stories we end up saying no to at West Branch simply because the ending isn’t quite right.)

Ismail is so invested in his toughness that any type of epiphany ending—where he realizes something significant about himself—would feel contrived and unearned. To me that sort of ending also ran the risk of being extraordinarily condescending to the character. But I did want to find a way to show that he really is a very good man. It finally came to me one morning, as I was waking up, that I needed to end on an image—Ismail with his hands in the air surrendering. And then the rest, of him watching his brother get away and being thrilled, just came to me. Of course, he’d surrender to save his brother. It fits his essential bravado and it also fit the depth of his love.

Michael Noll

The event that informs so many of the stories in The Other One is the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended recently. Now that the country is more stable and has gone through a contentious election mostly without violence, does that change your sense for the kind of stories you want to tell? Does the war continue to be part of your narrative imagination?

Hasanthika Sirisena

As someone who writes about Sri Lankans and who most likely always will, the war is impossible to ignore. I do though recognize that the war touches Sri Lankans in degrees and honor the impulse within the community that the war is not all there is to being a Sri Lankan.

That said, I also think that while the military conflict has ended and the LTTE have been defeated the social and cultural conflicts that led to the war on the first place haven’t been corrected. There have been advances: the return of some of the land taken from Tamil families in the North, for example. But, the Sri Lankan military continues to maintain a strong presence in the North. Recently, the police shot and killed two Tamil students at a checkpoint in Jaffna. Last week, I was on a panel about contemporary Sri Lankan writing. During the Q&A, a Tamil writer’s stories of disenfranchisement were dismissed wholesale by an audience member as fantasy and nostalgia. There was no attempt at understanding. There needs to exist thoughtful, careful, and diverse writing that insists on establishing and respecting all the narratives. I think there is a moral and ethical imperative to work toward that end not just through my own work but by supporting the writing of Sri Lankan nationals and writers of the diaspora.

November 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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